Thursday, 9 January 2014

Libertarian myths

In my previous blogs I have emphasised a libertarian myth; the everyday libertarian myth. This could be alternatively described as the myth of the free market outcome; that people should receive whatever the market would provide them with minimal interference by the state. We could also call this "free market fundamentalism." Rather than simply viewing the market as a a vitally important and useful institution, the fundamentalist thinks that free market outcomes are somehow correct outcomes with some kind of inherent moral value.

A further libertarian myth to expose mutually supports the free market fundamentalism. This is the myth of the economically isolated individual. Political philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke have made much use of isolated individuals in order to consider the legitimacy of the state. Some, such as Nozick, have applied this line of argument to the justification of the distribution of goods as well. However, it is important to emphasise that the distribution of goods has to be justified to all members of society. The focus on the idea of an isolated individual is completely inappropriate in this setting.



People are not isolated; humans are completely dependent on others for the first several years of their lives. Even beyond that point, our sense of ourselves as humans comes from our social interactions with others. A human raised by animals would probably not be recognised as human. There are of course the few historical cases where people have found themselves living somewhere where they are able to survive despite the fact they have no interaction with others. The classic example is the shipwreck victim on an unpopulated island. Such examples are extremely rare but such stories—real or fictional—are very popular. However, even this person takes with them their previous human capital and whatever technologies and equipment they have with them.

We might accept that the individual in the lonely island case is fully entitled to what they find or make, though this raises questions about global justice that I will not consider here. The point I wish to emphasise is that humans are part of a society and the rules of entitlement should be developed with that social interaction in mind, albeit with respect for each individual member of that society. What an individual might be able to get if their society was viewed as many one-person economic islands should have no influence on what an individual should receive in a society.

The myth of the economically isolated individual is regrettable and should not have any influence on anything. Yet it seems to underpin many people’s thinking (particularly in the USA). Political philosophy depends on artificial examples, and I have no problem with using them in arguments. However, while these examples and illustrations and powerful their use is limited to the particular argument they are designed to support. The idea of the economically isolated human has been taken outside its immediate contextual usefulness and used to bolster an otherwise unpalatable free-market ideology.

2 comments:

Physiocrat said...

This nonsense is presented in a particularly virulent form by Anarcho-Capitalist Murray Rothbard, who postulated an ideal society like that of the US homesteaders. This ignores the fact that the homesteaders were on land which had been in the possession of aboriginal people, with right to title issued by the US government and defended by the US Army. Moreover, there eventually came a time when there was no more land available for the taking, when the Pacific coast was reached there was no more west for young men to go to.

As a Catholic, Nozick should have known better than to support these views.

Ben Jamin' said...

Most so called "libertarians" are nothing of the sort. The only freedom they crave is to do whatever they want.

They see the State as the enemy, yet the polices they advocate, ironically make Socialism, and a large State apparatus inevitable.

This is because they champion a set of property rights that are unjust. Not only do they say taxation is theft (which is true), but they also claim that Land is private property, whose value should not be shared.

They are advocating economic slavery, where their predecessors also advocated chattel slavery.

Geo-libertarians, realise that the basis for all life, and thus our economy are agglomeration effects. The economies of scale we get from increasing networks.

Agglomoration is what gives us aggregate demand, and as it is not created by human effort, the most valuable Land that exists.

Humans exploit agglomeration, as we do other natural resources. And in order to do so we need Land, especially at the hub of our networks, city centers. Landowners, simply by the act of excluding others, are able to cream off the productive surplus created by these effects.

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